I recently stumbled across this set of questions for trans people about sexual orientation and genital preferences. Since there is nothing I enjoy more than answering strawmanny questions, I decided to help.

1) if sexual orientation is an inborn trait, what is it based on? Innate sexual orientation can’t be based on a social construct — gender is a social construct — and can only be based on physical, material traits. This excludes genitalia, secondary sex characteristics, body hair distribution, scent, voice, etc, so what determines our attraction to others in terms of their gender? What element of any given gender is attractive to hetero- and homosexual people?

First of all, I think “innate” is a confusing word when talking about any aspect of human psychology, and prefer not to use it. All complex human traits– from language use to altruism, from art to work, from love to childrearing– are a product of a complex combination of genetics, non-genetic biological influences (such as prenatal factors or childhood nutrition), interactions with other people, the broader culture, and that thorny and mysterious thing we call ‘free choice.’ Sexuality is no different.

“Innate” is a confusing word, because it bundles together a bunch of different concepts. For example, if a thing is innate, there are connotations that it is more real or legitimate than things that are not innate: your genes are what you’re “really like,” and all that society stuff is just brainwashing covering over your genuine preferences that would exist in a cultural vacuum. But this is not how humans work. If we are innately anything, we are innately a cultural species. A child raised without cultural influences does not have the true, free, authentic preferences that humans have untouched by society; they are a feral child.

Similarly, there are connotations that if a thing is innate then it is unchangeable, and if it is not innate then it is changeable. Imagine that we knew for certain that one person’s depression was exclusively and 100% caused by a certain gene and another’s by her experience of childhood abuse: is the former cursed to depression forever, no matter which medications she tries or how much therapy she goes to or how well she takes care of herself? Are you surprised if the latter winds up dealing with the aftereffects of abuse for the rest of her life?

For this reason, I feel it is necessary to define “innate” with some less connotationally-laden term. I am going to here treat “innate” as meaning “caused by genetics or non-genetic biological influences early in life”; if I am misrepresenting the author’s point of view then I hope they go to the comments to correct me, and I shall rewrite. 

“Social construct” is also kind of a confusing word. I am not really sure what it means. So I am going to replace it with “thing that only exists because we all agree on it,” which again I think reflects the intended meaning of the author. If we chose not to have “do you have a penis or a vagina?” as a major organizing factor in our society, which decides everything from what color we decorate the nursery to how much you’re paid, then gender would not exist.

There are lots of things that only exist because we all agree on them. For example, language exists because we agree on it: we have all agreed that this one set of mouth sounds means “dog” and this other set of mouth sounds means “pickle” and this third set of mouth sounds doesn’t mean anything at all; if we all woke up one day and decided that no mouth sounds meant anything, they wouldn’t. But while the science of language acquisition is tremendously complex, we can all agree there is some genetic influence on humans’ ability to acquire language: that’s why humans can learn language and lemurs can’t.

Similarly, money only exists because we agree on it: dollars have value because we all agree that they have value; if we decided that dollars were worthless, cash would primarily have value as a form of toilet paper. Some people desire money greatly, while others don’t care about it at all. It seems likely that this is to some degree genetic, like every other personality trait. If you have two extremely greedy parents from lines of extremely greedy people, their child is likelier than average to be very greedy. But money is a social construct! So a genetic trait can cause someone to want something that is a social construct.

Therefore, the entire premise of this question is fallacious. 

2a) if they are not inborn traits, what are the bases of hetero- and homosexuality? are they learned behaviours, conscious or subconscious decisions, or something else?

Sexual orientation has a genetic component but is actually not particularly genetic. Among men, genetics explains about a third to two-fifths of variance in sexual orientation, while among women genetics explains about a fifth of variance. Sexual orientation may be related to prenatal environment. Sexual orientation has never been firmly linked to any postnatal childhood experience (although people are more likely to identify as LGBQ in an environment where this is socially acceptable). Certainly, the scientific consensus points to sexual orientation not being a choice.

However, historically, many societies have had much higher rates of homosexual behavior than our current society. Societies such as classical Greece, Rome, and the Islamic Golden Age all had extraordinarily high rates of bisexual behavior among men, to the extent that the average man behaved bisexually. It is difficult to explain this in any way other than culture. People in societies where being interested in both men and women is no more marked than being interested in both tea and coffee are far far more likely to have sex with both men and women. Since that’s not true in our society, you’d hardly expect it to show up in our studies of the variance in sexual orientation. So I do believe that there is a cultural component. Certainly, there are some people who are exclusively interested in men in any possible culture, and others who are exclusively interested in women. But the balance of the evidence, in my opinion, suggests that there is some cultural component for many people. 

2b) is the exclusive attraction to one gender bigoted in the case of gay men being unattracted to straight women, whom they oppress on the axis of gender? if so, why? if not, why not?

I don’t actually think it’s bigoted to not be attracted to people, even across an axis of oppression.

Certainly, one could be not attracted to someone in a bigoted fashion. To use an extreme example, if I am not attracted to a Jewish person because I believe that I must preserve the purity of the white race by not having sex with those of lesser races, obviously my lack of attraction is rooted in bigotry. For a less extreme example, if I am not attracted to a fat person because I believe that all fat people are lazy and gluttonous and that lazy and gluttonous people are unattractive, then that is rooted in bigotry. For an even less extreme example, our society typically does not depict wheelchair users as sexual beings: if I have never been attracted to a person in a wheelchair, is this because I have never been exposed to narratives in which a wheelchair user is an object of sexual desire? It is difficult to know without exposing me to those narratives. 

But in any of those cases, the problem is not the lack of attraction itself. A Neo-Nazi who is attracted to Jews is hardly a more ethical person than a Neo-Nazi who isn’t. The lack of attraction is a symptom of an underlying prejudice (or in the case of the wheelchair user, an oversight) that should be addressed.

But imagine a person who is not attracted to fat people because, for whatever reason, they happen to not find fat rolls particularly attractive, the same way that a person might not be attracted to thin people because for whatever reason they don’t find muscles or slender waists particularly attractive. I do not think this is bigoted. It is part of the beautiful diversity of human sexuality. 

I am assuming here for the sake of argument that the person knows why they’re attracted to a particular trait. Many people don’t: if you’re not attracted to fat people, it can be hard to know if that’s because you happen to dislike a particular physical trait or because you associate fat with laziness. Fortunately, this is totally irrelevant to what you should do. If you are prejudiced, you should try to become less prejudiced; if that changes your attraction patterns, then cool. If it doesn’t, well, who cares. 

If a man happened to be exclusively attracted to men because he thought women are silly and frivolous, and in the absence of this belief he would be attracted to both men and women, then he is a misogynist. If he is exclusively attracted to men because he prefers flat chests and penises and beards, then he is not. 

2c) if sexual orientation is immutable despite not being inborn or innate, at what point is it formed, and based on what? at which point is it immutable? at which age?
2d) if sexual orientation is not immutable, how can it be changed? under which circumstances? by which processes?

We don’t understand the origins of sexual orientation very well, so I don’t know at what point it is formed. However, given the general lack of success of conversion therapy, one could argue that sexual orientation is probably fixed by the time one goes through puberty. 

Alternately, of course, people who grow up in repressive religious environments who can be anything other than gay already are. That is why conversion therapy is so stunningly unsuccessful and doesn’t have its success rates inflated by the existence of bisexuals who could maintain a happy straight relationship all along. The bisexuals don’t go to conversion therapy in the first place. The existence of situational sexual behavior suggests that this is true for some people; however, anecdotally, people’s deliberate efforts to make themselves bisexual do not work as well as one would hope. 

So my guess is that it is fixed around puberty for many people and is more but not infinitely flexible for other people. And trying to become attracted to people doesn’t work at all. If you’re going to become gay in prison, your dick will handle it for you, willing yourself into wanting your bunkmate is not going to work. 

That said, placing yourself in an environment without people of the gender you are typically sexually attracted to sometimes seems to work. Many people are more likely to be bisexual in an open accepting environment which encourages low-stakes experimentation with people of the same gender, although many people won’t be. Hormone replacement therapy is also sometimes known to change sexual orientation, but obviously this approach is not helpful for cisgender people.

3a) if sexual orientation is not an inborn trait, why are approximately 5-10% of people of either sex repulsed by the opposite genitalia without necessarily having experienced trauma? what determines this? is “penis repulsion” (or “vulva repulsion”, i suppose) an inborn trait?

I am really skeptical of this statistic! Only about 1.7% of the U. S. population is lesbian or gay, and only one percent of people are asexual. Even if you assume that all asexuals and all gay people are repulsed by the opposite genitalia– which is very far from true– that suggests that between 1% and 6% of straight people are repulsed by the opposite sex’s genitalia. Since no source is given, and that seems pretty implausible, I think this statistic was made up.

Many people find genitals in general to be kind of squicky, especially outside of a sexual context. But I think that being repulsed by particular genitalia is pretty easy to get over, if there’s some reason to. Consider other forms of sexualized disgust. Homophobes are often genuinely disgusted by (male) homosexuality; I have read homophobic writers mention something as bland as the fact that gay men are sometimes penetrated, and then immediately apologize for the horrifying mental images this brings up. A completely non-homophobic person (who is not repulsed by sex in general) is not particularly horrified by reading the sentence “gay men are sometimes penetrated,” nor do they experience disgust when watching two men kiss or hold hands. (To be clear, if you are homophobic in this fashion, I don’t think you need to beat yourself up about it, as long as you don’t let queer people know that we disgust you.)

Presumably this is not because homophobes were born with a natural disgust for gay sex, while non-homophobes were born without this repulsion. Instead, non-homophobes have interacted with gay people, seen gay people kiss and hold hands, and normalized homosexuality. It is an ordinary part of life for them. Similarly, I expect that if you are repulsed by certain genitalia, and then you interact with them as part of a normal course of life– perhaps because you are a medical professional or you participate in certain clothing-optional events or you are heterosexual– they will become less disgusting. Instead, they will be an ordinary body part, perhaps an unappealing body part, but no more remarkable than an elbow. 

I don’t expect that becoming less disgusted by particular genitalia will make you want to have sex with people with those genitals. Lack of disgust is not enthusiasm; it is indifference. Even if you are chill about penises in general, it is perfectly reasonable to not want one coming anywhere near your bits. Fortunately, there is no law that requires that people have sex with everyone they are not disgusted by, or non-homophobic straight people would be in real trouble.  

Of course, a major difference between genital repulsion and being repulsed by gay people is that, unless you are heterosexual or a medical professional, you can live a perfectly long and happy life never interacting with genitals you think are gross. You should avoid expressing this opinion in public, as it may make people feel bad about their bodies, but I think there is no particular obligation to become undisgusted by genitalia unless you want to.

3b) if “genital preferences” are not inborn, how are they formed, and based on what? at which point are they immutable?

If the study of sexual orientation is in its infancy, the study of how sexual orientation interacts with transness is a fetus. I don’t think anyone knows the answer to this question.

3c) if genital preferences are not immutable, how can they be changed? what process should someone go through if they are seeking to overcome their genital preference? what resources are available?

I feel like I need to emphasize that I do not actually think any person needs to be attracted to people with penises. There are more than enough straight and bi men, bi women, and lesbians who are attracted to trans women to keep every trans woman sexually satisfied for the rest of her life. (And the converse for trans men, of course.) I think a better approach is to destigmatize attraction to trans people, so that people who are attracted to trans people are not so full of self-hatred and disgust about it, so they can date trans people. 

But if for some reason you feel a deep desire to be attracted to both women with penises and women with vaginas… well, I’d suggest “conceptualize women with penises as women” but honestly a lot of guys who are into trans women don’t seem to do that? “She-male” is its own porn category. It’s worth a shot, though. I am not sure how to convince your brain to reclassify trans women as women; it seems like a thing that naturally happens in trans-positive social groups. At a guess, I’d suggest that hanging around with trans people helps. 

I’d also suggest looking at porn with trans girls in it. Maybe trans girls with cis girls at first, so the dick is no different than the dick in het porn you watch, just attached to a woman with a pair of nice breasts. Once you associate trans women with hot sex things happening, maybe you’ll be more cool with dick. 

There’s also just random chance. A lot of people I know were not particularly interested in trans women… until they met the one trans girl who happened to turn them on. I don’t believe in forcing people to be attracted to people they’re not attracted to. I encourage people to be open-minded about unexpected attractions, so that they don’t wind up dismissing something really good because it doesn’t fit your preconception of what you like. For a lot of people, dick in general is meh but their girlfriend‘s dick is hot. 

4a) sex-based attraction is considered to be problematic because we can’t always know someone’s sex just by looking at them. isn’t it also true that we can’t know someone’s gender just by looking at them?

Yep! This is why, in my experience, the most common form of attraction is based on secondary sexual characteristics: both the obvious ones like breasts and beards and the more subtle aspects of fat distribution and muscle size that make a person recognizable as male or female. Trans people who have been on hormones for a while usually have the secondary sexual characteristics associated with their identified gender, so many people are attracted to trans people.

Of course, the diversity of human sexuality is infinite. Some people are attracted to other people based on their stated gender identity; others, based on their presentation as feminine or masculine; still others, based on genitalia; and of course many people are attracted to a combination of these things.

4b) if a hypothetical gay man experiences attraction to a woman-identified person, does he lose attraction to her upon learning of her gender identity, or is he in fact bisexual?

Some people do lose attraction to people upon learning that they identify as women. Some people don’t. Being attracted to the occasional person of the other gender doesn’t make you straight, any more than a straight girl with a girl crush on Christina Hemsworth is bisexual, or a straight man who’s attracted to a very convincing crossdresser is homosexual. Trans people are confusing for sexual orientation, and it makes sense to identify as ‘gay’ if in general you are not attracted to women. 

4c) if he loses the attraction, why does the same principle not apply to sex-based attraction?

Well, sure, you can become unattracted to someone upon learning that they have a penis, just like you can become unattracted to them upon learning that their favorite movie is Thor: The Dark World or that they are cruel to puppies or any other trait you can’t learn from looking at them. You can also become unattracted to someone upon learning that they’re infertile, although the rarity of this complaint among infertility bloggers makes me suspect it is a less common preference than blog commenters on posts about dating trans women would lead one to believe.

You can also become unattracted to someone upon learning that they almost certainly have XY chromosomes. However, this is a very strange preference. Normally, people do not have sexual preferences about the inside of other people’s bodies: no one goes “it is SO sexy that you have two kidneys” or “I am only attracted to people with arachnoid cysts.” Therefore, one might suspect that this is related to the gendered meaning we assign XY chromosomes: that is, that people with XY chromosomes are men, and you are not attracted to men.

In fact, not being attracted to someone because they have XY chromosomes is very similar to not being attracted to someone because they identify as a man. In both cases, you have learned a fact you cannot observe that causes you to reinterpret their bodies as someone who is not a target of your sexual attraction, because they are not the gender of person that you are attracted to.

To be honest, I am curious about how this is supposed to work with the genetic nature of sexual orientation which cannot be influenced by social constructs or other such things we expect genes not to know about. How do your genes know what a chromosome is? Did you evolve very very quickly after the invention of karyotyping?

4d) if he is in fact bisexual, are we not all bisexual? how can we claim to be only attracted to women or men if we don’t know the gender identity of everyone we’ve been attracted to?

How can you claim to be only attracted to women or men if you don’t know the sex of everyone you’re attracted to? It seems to me that the “I am only attracted to people with XX chromosomes, therefore I’m straight” argument fails equally: you can never know for certain that you haven’t been attracted to a trans woman (or, for that matter, a convincing crossdresser). 

Like, seriously, are you going to tell me that if you’re a straight woman or a gay man and you walked down the street and looked at this guy:

and went “Nice!”, actually you’re bi? And how convinced are you that this has never happened?

Let us please use words in a way that vaguely corresponds to reality. 

5) if sexual orientation is based on gender, what is the definition of ‘gender’?

Gender is a word that means several different things, including:

  • The system of roles and expectations that derive from our sexed bodies;
  • The way that people classify individuals in relation to this system (as “men” or “women”);
  • Your inner psychological relationship to that system;
  • The specific aspect of your inner psychological relationship to that system that relates to your preferences about your sexed body and how you’re classified. 

The second one is thorny and people often misunderstand it as saying that it is masculinity or femininity. Laith Ashley up there probably has XX chromosomes. Lea DeLaria also has XX chromosomes:

They are both masculine people. They are both people with XX chromosomes. Gender is the thing where you can tell that Laith Ashley is a man and Lea DeLaria is a woman, and that she does not magically become a man due to her choice of haircut. 

I would honestly expect that sexual orientation is most often based on gender in that sense, because of the simple fact that most gay men and straight women are going to go “nice!” about Mr. Ashley and are going to go “not my type, because I’m not attracted to women” about Ms. DeLaria. If we have to reduce sexual orientation down to one single trait– instead of accepting that people’s sexualities differ and that “gay,” “straight,” “bisexual,” and “asexual” are abstractions over a more complex reality– this one would be the one.